Arts critic Moira Macdonald recommends debuts by Annie Hartnett, Tom McAllister, Jess Kidd and Patty Yumi Cottrell.
What do Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Stephen King’s “Carrie” have in common? They were all first novels.
There’s something delicious about picking up a book by an author you’ve never heard of; there are no expectations, no weight that the novel needs to carry. Instead, it’s a new voice that just might become a new friend. (I will, one of these days, devote a column to the pleasures of rereading; something I spend entirely too much time doing.) Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying on a handful of recent debut novels for size; here are four that already had me anticipating what their author’s next work might bring. All of them, in different ways, addressed a common theme: loss.
A first-person novel narrated by a child is always a tricky prospect — it’s so easy for the language to become cloying or precocious — but Annie Hartnett, in “Rabbit Cake” (Tin House Books, 344 pages, $15.95), finds just the right voice for her irresistible heroine. Elvis Babbitt, who ages from 10-and-a-half to 12 over the course of the novel, is facing a very grown-up problem: how to grieve. Her mother drowned while sleepwalking at the beach near the family’s home in Freedom, Alabama, and the remaining Babbitts cope in different ways. Elvis’ sister Lizzie, who’s inherited their mother’s nocturnal habit, gorges herself while sleepeating; her father wanders the house wearing his late wife’s robe and lipstick (“It helps me to feel closer to her,” he explains, quite reasonably), and the animal-loving Elvis just wants to find answers: why her mother died, and when she herself might start to feel better.
Despite the sadness of its story, “Rabbit Cake” is a very funny book, filled with parrots wearing sweaters, animal-shaped cakes (Lizzie’s trying to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for “the most rabbit cakes ever baked”) and just a touch of fantasy. And Hartnett has a lovely way with description, such as Lizzie’s explanation that a seizure is “like a bird was set free in her brain,” and Elvis’ observation that, without Lizzie, it was “so quiet I could hear the bones of our house creak in the wind.” By its end — at which I’ll confess I shed a few tears — you might feel like a Babbitt yourself.
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Grief is likewise the centerpoint of Tom McAllister’s sweetly moving debut “The Young Widower’s Handbook” (Algonquin, 282 pp., $25.95): 29-year-old Hunter Cady is in shock at the death of his adored wife, Kaitlyn, who dies suddenly — young and beautiful and vibrant — in the book’s opening pages. “Your life had been completely built around the idea of being a married man until the day you died,” muses Hunter, in one of the book’s second-person passages, “but now that plan is ruined and it’s difficult to know how to begin again.”
McAllister, a graduate of the University of Iowa’s famed MFA program, alternates chapters between second-person and third-person narration, and the result is an interesting meander in and out of Hunter’s direct consciousness. Hunter know he’s not a remarkable man, but that Kait made him better, and so he can’t quite let her go — literally, as he takes off on a cross-country road trip accompanied by Kait’s ashes, carried in a blue-gray urn shaped like a cube. There are some funny encounters along the way — I particularly liked Hunter’s hapless visit to a Renaissance Faire — but “The Young Widower’s Handbook” is most affecting as an almost stream-of-consciousness love letter to Kait; McAllister makes us fall in love with her, just as Hunter did.
“Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 375 pp., $26), a whimsical mystery from the Irish writer Jess Kidd, features a central character dealing with a different kind of loss: Mahony, a young Dubliner who has the kind of looks that make people want to do things for him — “he’s been into his twenties and he’ll come out again the other side none the worse for it,” notes an observer — arrives to the small town of Mulderrig, where his mother disappeared shortly after his birth. The idea is to find out what happened to her; the reality, in this sleepy town where indolent ghosts live alongside the human inhabitants, is that things happen here on their own time.
And that’s the pleasure of “Himself” — the way the novel’s plot, with its delicate language and soft Irish lilt, wanders like lush green vines, never seeming to travel in straight lines. A villageful of characters emerge, all of them having a deft way with a line (“The dead are like cats, Mahony … They don’t always come when they’re called”), and I’ll admit to muddling a few of them, but it doesn’t matter. The mystery here is how the living and the dead live side by side, and the joy is the music with which Kidd brings all of the characters to life: “The dead drift down through floorboards and up through flagstones and through windows and walls and locked doors, listening, yearning.”
The main character of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s spiky, original “Sorry to Disrupt the Peace” (McSweeney’s, 280 pp., $24) is also on an investigation, but one of a very different tone. Helen Moran is a self-described “thirty-two-year-old woman, single, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated and partially employed,” drifting along in a sort of New York fog in her shared studio apartment, when she receives the news that her adopted brother has committed suicide. Back to Milwaukee she goes, to the people she always refers to as her “adoptive parents” (Helen and her brother were adopted from different Korean families; her Milwaukee family is white), and where she vows to investigate why he ended his life.
If Kidd’s novel is lit in soft autumn sunshine and picturesque twilight, Cottrell’s shines in harsh fluorescence; there’s little that’s charming or lovable about Helen, a rough-edged burr of a person who’s both perpetually angry and curiously optimistic. She doesn’t know herself very well, nor does she seem to have connected with anybody else, and the book places us in Helen’s consciousness through a period of several days, as she tries to find closure, with Cottrell’s abrupt, stop-and-start sentences mirroring the character’s state of mind. Gradually, we come to understand Helen better — “Nice is not interesting … Nice is the declawed cat, the beige house with the gazebo, and what’s the point of a gazebo”?” — and find ourselves, unexpectedly, wishing her well.